Is Colorado Ready To Face The Next Phase Of The Pandemic Without A Statewide Mask Mandate?

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Masks litter alleys and sidewalks in Denver’s LoDo and RiNo neighborhoods during the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Update April 2, 2021: Gov. Polis signed a new executive order extending the mask mandate for another 30 days but altered some of the restrictions. Counties that move to the green level on the state's color-coded COVID-19 dial will be allowed to drop the mask mandate starting on April 3. Masks will still be required, however, in schools, child care settings, public areas of government buildings and select indoor settings. The governor is still encouraging Coloradans to keep wearing a mask, even in counties that are released from compliance. Our original story continues below.

It may be the most anticipated decision of the entire pandemic in Colorado, whether that be eagerly or nervously — If or when will Gov. Jared Polis lift a statewide health order to wear a mask in public?

With vaccinations ramping up and expanding to everyone older than 16 on Friday, a major decision could come any day now, with the change possibly coming in mid-April.

The state is preparing to “devolve” the pandemic response effort, which basically means the state is passing the decision-making to local officials. At a news conference Monday, the governor said changes would be “localized in a thoughtful way,” as long as Colorado didn’t see “any unexpected major change in the trajectory of the virus.”

But a move to dump the statewide mask requirement would come in the face of pleas from President Joe Biden and top public health leaders to keep the mandates and other safety measures in place. Coronavirus cases have shot up around the nation as governors in a number of states have abandoned the mandates and other restrictions, which are seen as key to getting the virus under control.

Colorado’s mandate has been in place since last summer and is widely regarded by infectious disease and public health leaders as perhaps the single most valuable piece of guidance to keep individuals, families and communities from catching and spreading COVID-19. But it’s also drawn fierce resistance from some.

And as vaccinations dramatically expand, heavy pandemic fatigue has set in and many people are simply ready to move on. Even, to borrow a phrase from the governor, if the virus isn’t ready to move on.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A statue at Keystone Resort honors founders Max and Edna Dercum — Max decorated with a face mask, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

No statewide policy would leave the responsibility to local communities and public health leaders

Take for example, Dwayne Smith, the public health director for Elbert County, on the plains southeast of Denver. Folks are feeling a “pervasive wariness” and “pandemic fatigue” after a year of it in the largely rural county of about 28,500, he said.

“From a public health perspective, I’m not in favor,” of lifting the mask mandate, but he said in a ranching county where social distancing comes more naturally and residents lean conservative there’s resistance to a “one size fits all,” statewide order.

Smith sends out a daily email with Elbert County’s latest public health numbers — and they document a still active virus. It shows Elbert’s two-week average rate of positive COVID-19 tests is more than 9 percent. The one-week average positivity is around 7.5 percent.

Both those figures are well above the statewide one-week average positivity of slightly above 4 percent, and the 5 percent threshold percent seen as worrisome. Its metrics align with Level Yellow, identified with “Concern” on the state’s multi-colored dial. Vaccination numbers are growing but lagging the state average.

Without the statewide mandate, Smith concedes it’ll be harder to make the message stick that people should still wear masks in public spaces. He’ll need to rely on public leaders, along with his small staff, to get the word out.

“We need to continue to be vigilant,” he said.

“There is no playbook for this,” Smith said, noting two news cases of a more transmissible variant popped up this week in the county, which first recorded the nation’s first variant case about three months ago.

Changes to the statewide mask mandate seem imminent. The current mask order expires Saturday, April 3. The governor intends to sign a new 30-day mask order that will be “modified to account for where we are in the pandemic, the varied cases count by county, and the feedback we have received through public comment,” according to a statement issued by his spokesperson.

For weeks, Polis has hinted that he was looking to ease the mask order. At one recent news conference, when asked directly by a reporter if he’d keep it, Polis was non-committal — a few days later he extended the mask order by another 30 days.

“If it helps you to wear a mask because Gov. Polis ordered it, then please wear it,” Polis said. “I just want you to wear a mask so we can save lives and end the pandemic.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A sign at the host stand by the door of Steamworks Brewing in Durango reminds patrons of face mask and social laws in place in the restaurant, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

A patchwork of mask mandates gets even more varied

Some of Colorado’s neighbors, like Wyoming, Montana, Texas and Utah, have already dropped mask mandates or plan to do so soon. At the same time, counties in Colorado, including Custer and Douglas, are asserting their desire to eliminate state public health orders.

Views on the wisdom of lifting the order run deep and all over the map.

On the Western Slope, Mesa County Commissioners recently voted unanimously to end government-mandated COVID-19 restrictions in the county.

The move came in the form of a resolution to let businesses choose to enforce restrictions like mask-wearing and capacity limits, instead of relying on government mandates that have been ongoing for a year.

“If people want to choose to wear a mask and social distance that that's up to them, kind of like it would be with the flu,” commissioner Cody Davis said.

Davis said the county would continue with messaging about health precautions, “so it's not like we're throwing everything out the window. We're just getting back to where it was before we entered all these restrictions and mandates.”

“We’re ready to drop all of the restrictions,” said Jeff Kuhr, the county’s public health director.

He noted the county is ready to go to the lowest level on the COVID-19 dial and that case and hospitalization numbers in Mesa County are low.

“As we're easing out of this, we don't feel like a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate,” he said. “We're going to go and kind of leave it up to our residents and our businesses on how they want to approach this.”

Last year, Mesa County pioneered the 5-star program, in which small businesses that agree to implement basic procedures to reduce the chances of infecting patrons can qualify for fewer restrictions. Kuhr credited that to helping pave the way to move on without the statewide mask mandate.

He said many places, like businesses that are part of a national chain, as well as federal facilities, will still require masks, and the county’s public health department will help get the word out about which businesses will no longer require masks and which will.

“We have to make that clear to our residents that they're not being mistreated,” if they visit a business that requires a mask, he said. “There's going to be a huge communication push with this.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Assistant manager Lexy Hesselberg makes a drink at Solar Roast’s Colorado Springs store on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

Fears that frontline workers would bear the brunt of a no-mask policy

But a number of groups, including those representing local public health officials, doctors and frontline workers, have all appealed to the governor to keep the mask mandate in place until most Coloradans have been vaccinated.

“It's just too soon to lift the mask mandate. I think it's reckless and irresponsible right now,” said Kim Cordova, President of UFCW Local 7, a union that represents more than 25,000 workers in Colorado and Wyoming.

She said the pandemic continues to ravage communities in Colorado, including those working on the frontlines in groceries, retail, health care, meatpacking and food processing.

She said most of Colorado’s population has not been fully vaccinated, and the state is nowhere near the level of immunity for the state to warrant a no-mask policy.

A bit less than 30 percent of Colorado’s population has now received one dose and slightly less than 20 percent is fully vaccinated. That’s far below the 70 to 90 percent level infectious disease experts believe is needed to reach broad community protection and to mostly snuff the virus out.

“We don't know how effective the vaccine will be against the variants that are out there now,” Cordova said. “We want to see a safe level of immunity, especially for these types of workers that don't have control over their environment.”

The number of variants that are considered more transmissible and dangerous continues to grow in Colorado. The state health department has documented 1,042 cases as variants of concern, with another 26 under investigation, according to the state’s website.

Other gauges of progress in defeating the virus have stalled. For much of the last two weeks, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have remained flat, well below the peak of last fall’s big surge, but still stubbornly hovering between 350 and 400 people.

The frontline workers are tired of being in the crosshairs of the pandemic, said Tiffany Knudsen, a physician's assistant working at an Aurora urgent care, and a member of the UFCW Local 7 union. She urged the governor and his team to wait and see how other states that have lifted mask mandates fare before dropping the one here.

She worries Colorado will see a fresh spike in cases and potentially hospitalizations once the mandate is dropped.

“The mandate and the order need to stay in place for the message to be consistent,” she said.

Local public health directors predict it will be harder to get residents and customers to follow local mandates if the statewide order is lifted.

“We saw more compliance when the state order was put in place,” last summer said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “I suspect we'll see less compliance when the state lifts their order. That does put an added burden on local public health departments.”

Getting the message out at the local or regional level is simply more challenging without the governor’s support.

“I think it makes it harder for all local public health departments when you have to enforce something at the local level,” he said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A medical-masked Frida Kahlo poster in the window of a Golden vintage store, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.

Signaling 'the end' too early

Many Coloradans will interpret the end of the statewide mask mandate as a signal that the crisis is over and “that we're on our way out of the pandemic,” even if that’s premature, said Joni Reynolds, Gunnison County’s public health director.

Without the statewide order, employees of counties or businesses that want to maintain mask requirements will have to enforce the policy, which could put them at risk.

She said she and others in local public health have voiced their concerns to the governor and his team, but so far it’s been unpersuasive.

“I feel powerless there,” she said. “I don't feel like my voice is influential in those state decisions.”

Reynolds issued a mask mandate early in the pandemic last March and said she plans to keep it in place in Gunnison until it expires this summer, regardless of what the state does.

“My intent is to stay with that until July 1,” she said.

National public health experts are urging states like Colorado to hold on to their mask mandates for just a few more weeks, perhaps until Memorial Day, when many more people will be vaccinated and schools will be out.

“We're really at this pivotal point,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus and expert in infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

“If we do hang on for a few more weeks,” if states like Colorado, and the nation, can successfully vaccinate a large part of the population, then summer could look much more normal. Many more people won’t get sick, hospitalized or die, and the U.S. can avoid another brutal wave, like recently in Europe, or even more catastrophically, in Brazil, where variants have run wild.

Elbert County’s Smith said the community has their hearts set on hosting a major annual event, the Elizabeth Stampede Rodeo the first week of June. The event, which hosts crowds of 2,100, was canceled last year for the first time since World War II, Smith said. He hopes the overall situation looks favorable enough for it to happen this year.

“We still got two months (until then),” he said. “The reality is at some point we’ve got to dip our feet in the water,” while still having safeguards in place.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated Dwayne Smith's name.